Most people reading the Observer’s editorial page will never have any contact with an institution that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers every year: Family Court. Yet the impact and importance of Family Court is fundamental to the safety and opportunity of many of our youngest, most vulnerable children.
Last year there were some 220,000 new cases brought before the 57 Family Court judges citywide. Child support issues were the most numerous, accounting for 82,000 matters. Another 60,000 cases involved adoption, guardianship, custody, or the permanent termination of parental rights. But it was the 35,000 child protection proceedings that were the most urgent: these involved abuse and neglect—immediate, often life-threatening matters.
In 2009, the State Senate began a report on court financing with the quote, “Family Court is perhaps the saddest place in New York.” As a report by Abigail Kramer for the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs concluded, “Even the wins in Family Court are sad.” These are the families who are most affected by poverty, dysfunction, mental illness and crime. The lucky children are those who have been placed in foster homes—some 12,000 currently, down from a high of 54,000 in 1995.
‘Family Court is perhaps the saddest place in New York.’
In 2014, approximately 1,500 children 3 years old and under were put into foster care. Another 800 4-year-olds to 7-year-olds, and 600 8-year-olds to 11-year-olds entered the same as well. The remaining 1,500 children placed in foster homes were pre-teens and teenagers, up through age 18, when they age out of the system. The average amount of time spent in a foster home ranges from 30 months for 1-year-olds to 15 months for pre-teens and teenagers.
The city agency responsible for investigating and initiating child protective and removal proceedings is ACS—the Administration for Children’s Services. Currently, ACS conducts more than 55,000 investigations of suspected child abuse or neglect annually. Removing a child from a dangerous home is a difficult and slow process: it now takes eight months, on average, down from 10.5 months in 2006.
The Court is under the able direction of Chief Administrative Judge Jeannete Ruiz. And while the Court is in capable hands and has a clear strategic plan to better serve these vulnerable families, there is so much more to do. Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature have a special obligation to these families. Legislation that would put through important reforms has been delayed and funding needs have gone unaddressed. They need to act, and quickly.